It’s February again, which means the stores are filling up with chocolate, the theaters are full of rom-coms, and the idea of “true love” will be prominent everyplace we look. Blah. Yes, I’m a cynic when it comes to love.
It’s fair to say that after a failed relationship or 12, I (and many like me) have abandoned the idea of “happily ever after.” We hope, at best, for “happily for three months and an amicable separation.”
We can chalk it up to cynicism, or bad luck, but positive psychology experts, Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, along with her husband James O. Pawelski, believe it’s something different—and have ideas on how to find the “happily ever after” that many of us have given up on. And their ideas, based in both ancient wisdom and modern science, resonate—even with a cynic like me.
“No matter what type of relationship you are talking about, it takes effort. Just like any skill or talent in life, you have to work for it to be a success—you have to practice and train. No one expects to wake up tomorrow and run a marathon, and relationships are the same way,” believes Suzie.
It doesn’t help that we are inundated with unrealistic portrayals of relationships through every aspect of pop-culture: fairy tales, movies, television shows, even music. Suzie notes that the romantic notion of “soul mates,” where we expect this magical person to complete us can actually be detrimental to relationships.
“James and I have nothing against the concept of soul mates if what you mean by the term is finding a person with whom you forge a deep connection, but the way soul mates are often depicted in pop-culture gives people the impression they just show up in your life through the right set of serendipitous circumstances.
That perspective can actually be an obstacle to healthy relationships. Relying on fate can lead to inaction on our part. It can also lead to an overdependence on the other person. And finally, it can be difficult to sustain. Finding a partner that you can be happy with requires you to be proactive. It requires effort and work.”
“In our culture, we put so much emphasis on finding “Mr. or Ms. Right,” and then marrying them,” she continues. “And that’s the end of the expectations—no one talks about what happens once the wedding is over. No one writes Part 2 of the fairy tale about what happens after they ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.”
There are no courses in school about how to survive and thrive in relationships, yet scientific studies have found that having satisfying and sustainable relationships is one of the most important factors associated with personal happiness and aging well.
This absence of education is part of what motivated Suzie and James to explore the science of positive psychology—the study of what makes individuals and communities thrive—to see how it can be used to help foster healthy relationships. Using the results of positive psychology research, they created an engaging and interactive 12-lesson course on how to build love that lasts.
Here are four quick tips from Suzie and James:
When Not to Follow the Golden Rule
When it comes to events like Valentine’s Day, communication is key to managing expectations. This is one place where we might want to question “The Golden Rule” of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Often, we assume our partner wants the same thing we do.
But you might want chocolate and flowers, while your partner may prefer an experience you can enjoy as a couple. For this reason, it’s important to ask questions of your partner, listening to and acknowledging what they want and need. Putting the shoe on the other foot, so to speak.
We can’t assume our partner knows what we want without being told. So, we need to share our wants and needs with them. And since we are both continually changing, this type of communication can help us understand one another on a deeper level, whether it’s our first Valentine’s Day together or our 50th.
Go Back to Go Forward
Look back to the beginning of the relationship—the falling in love stage. What attracted you to your partner? What intrigued you? What strengths of theirs did you admire? Zest? Leadership? Analytical and critical thinking?
Sometimes these same traits that initially attracted us start to annoy us because we are no longer focusing on what’s right with our partner, but rather are dwelling on what’s wrong. Through this negative lens, those unique differences in our partner are now seen as deficits.
That leadership personality you fell for can now seem bossy. But thinking back to the beginning, remembering why you found your partner’s strengths attractive, and then celebrating them can help bring back the positivity you shared.
When we use our own strengths on a daily basis, we grow as individuals. When we help our partners use their strengths and celebrate them, we grow as a couple.
Small Moments Matter
One of the most important things we can do is to slow down and savor the daily moments. We so frequently move at such rapid speeds that many moments slip by unnoticed. And with that we miss opportunities to connect with our loved one. But happiness is found in the small moments.
All we have in life are moments, so be present in the moments shared with your partner. Stop multi-tasking and give your partner your full attention when approached. Really listen, acknowledge, and respond—don’t just react, and don’t go on automatic pilot with your replies.
Don’t try to force yourself, or your partner, to be happy. That is likely to backfire. Instead, do what the happiest people do: “prioritize positivity.” In other words, notice what activities bring joy to your life and then schedule them into your day. The activities will differ from person to person, of course, since we have unique strengths and personalities.
What can you do for yourself, and with your partner, that will bring you delight? Take a walk, cook a meal, watch a realistic romantic movie (Suzie recommends “As Good as It Gets”), garden … whatever you love. Don’t just wait for enjoyable things to happen. By pursuing our beloved interests and hobbies, positive emotions are more likely to occur.